Is Christmas in France different to Christmas in Britain muses Honor Marks, an expat Brit who lives in France as she takes a look at French Christmas traditions in her region of Languedoc Roussillon…
When I first moved to France several years ago, I was immediately aware of how different the French way of life was to the British. Sometimes frustrating, often charming, one of the things I really noticed was how Christmas only started to get going in December. How refreshing after years of seeing Christmas treats and sweets in the British supermarkets as early as September.
One thing I’m happy about is that Christmas markets have improved over the years. Yes, I can still find the old lady who has knitted some beanie hats with the itchiest wool she can find. Those cheap Ikea wine glasses which have been lovingly hand painted (badly) and which will certainly decorate all your nice glasses once they have been put through the dishwasher are still there. But there will be plenty of fine French delicacies, fudge, saucissons, chutneys and of course cheese – there is always plenty of the latter.
The towns of Carcassonne and Narbonne come to life with fantastic Christmas markets selling all sorts of artisan gifts and handmade traditional toys. The town squares are replaced with ice rinks and the outdoor cafes are brimming with people drinking chocolate chaud. There are mini funfairs and zoos for the little ones and it becomes a truly magical place to be. My favourite place to spend Christmas Eve is in Les Halles where a chef calls over a megaphone to the butcher for the meat who throws it to the chef to be cooked fresh in front of you. Great food in a buzzing atmosphere, good at any time of the year but particularly during the festive season
Historically in my area of France, Christmas Trees weren’t as popular as they were in the UK and people preferred to have a nativity scene (santons) in their homes instead, however nowadays they often have both.
The French tend to celebrate with a family gathering on Christmas Eve which continues into the following day. Unlike in the UK, the big Christmas meal will mostly consist of delicious sea food delicacies, namely oysters and huge crevettes, as well as the traditional foie gras and boudin blanc!
Turkey is making more and more of an appearance and occasionally you can even find parsnips! A must for any Christmas lunch I think!
Apparently French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, in the hopes that Père Noël will fill them with gifts. I shall of course be leaving my traditional stocking which is in fact a converted pillowcase!
In 1962, a law was passed in France decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard.
As for New Year’s Eve, although fewer and fewer French families attend la Messe de Minuit on Christmas Eve, it is still an important part of Christmas for many. It is followed by a huge feast, called le Réveillon (from the verb réveiller – to wake up or to revive).
Boxing Day is not practiced in France – unlike in Britain where we love to repeat Christmas day with the extended family or find ourselves at the shops either returning all our unwanted Christmas gifts or grabbing bargains in the sales!
I do miss the massive tins of Quality Street (sweets) and have to seek out English gatherings to get hold of my Christmas Crackers as they don’t have them in France. Mince pies are not on the shelves in France and of course we Brits must have them. I have tracked down some mincemeat and will be making my own this year!
Sending Christmas cards is not common in France, sending a New Year card is more the norm and you should wish everyone “Excellentes fêtes de fin d’année!”
My family (and I think many expats too) still stick to our usual traditions of late lunch on the 25th followed by falling asleep in front of the TV…where as French families tend to sit around the table eating and talking for much longer during the day.
However you spend your Christmas, wishing you all a very Joyeux Noel!!
Honor Marks runs the Maison de La Roche, a once neglected wine domaine in Languedoc-Roussillon which has been bought back to life as gites and is open all year round.